The monster was carefully drawing in its long, chitinous arms when it heard the voice.
“What are you doing?”
There was a hiss like wind as the fine hairs on the monster’s many legs trembled. Its claws tightened around the sleeping girl, but it was careful not to scratch her skin.
Turning, it saw nothing. The narrow street was empty, a single streetlight hummed and spilled a weak glow. The monster lowered its arms and peered into the murky darkness. Then it noticed.
“Are you a real monster?”
The monster felt a heaviness in its chest as it opened its mouth to speak. Its throat was dry. It was not used to speaking.
The monster tilted its head at the strange boy. It was unusual to have been spotted, although it had been seen before. Legends need some evidence after all, even if it’s usually in the tales told by teens to scare each other.
The boy was small. Perhaps a few years older than the sleeping girl. He stared, wide-eyed and completely unafraid. He was out too late. All the other children had long since been ushered home to where they slept safely.
Well, relatively safely.
The monster huffed and began to walk. It made its way through the streets, careful not to scrape or scratch along the edges of the decorated homes. Its sharp talons made dull thuds on the asphalt.
A stop sign squeaked and trembled. The wind carried with it a dampness, a scent of rotting leaves and wet roads. A few jack-o-lanterns still glowed, nubs of candles not yet snuffed out.
The path moved past an abandoned field, grown over with long weeds and grasses.
“How come you’re taking her?”
The monster’s eyes widened and it turned, startled to see the boy wandering beside it. This had never happened before. It stared at its long talons. It knew they were razor sharp, capable of rending flesh and breaking bone. But… there had never been a need for that.
“Go home,” it said, with a voice crunching and broken.
The monster was baffled now and it shivered in frustration.
“I don’t feel like it.”
This was not going well at all. The monster licked at its fangs.
“Where are you taking her?”
The monster stormed off, walking quickly as the path became damp and muddy. The woods were ahead. There were beasts there. On this night, there were many more than normal. Tonight, the beasts themselves were certainly not normal…
The monster thought of strange creatures it had met over the years. Toothy and fanged, webbed and scaled, hungry and vicious. Maybe it could lead this one astray and if something bad happened… well…
The boy scampered alongside.
“I’ve never seen a monster before. Everyone says you’re made up but I found one!”
The monster glanced back. The boy was thin. Scruffy hair matted along the side of his head. He smelled, but then all children did. This boy was not dressed as a ghost or a beast. Nor was he wearing bedclothes.
“Why aren’t you at home?” asked the monster.
The boy looked down for a moment and then tilted his head to the side, as if about to spit.
“Don’t have one.” He replied eventually.
The monster considered this. That in itself was odd as it had never really considered the lives of children before. Humans were so… fleeting. It had seen and stolen from so many. Where was the time to consider each one’s story?
“Do you live in the woods?”
The monster did not reply.
“I know a guy,” said the boy cheerfully. “He sleeps out in the woods. Says its better there. Do you live-”
“-Beyond the woods,” the monster replied, surprised that it was sharing so much.
The boy nodded and walked close, his shoulder briefly slipping alongside a jagged black leg. The monster flinched and moved away. It had never been touched before by a child. It always did the touching.
It turned back to the girl, shocked that it had not paid heed to her. She slumbered still, wrapped in the blankets she had been bundled in. Her arm had slipped out so the monster carefully pulled it in and tucked it back under the blanket. The chill was growing stronger.
“Are you going to eat her?”
The monster blanched and paused. This conversation would have to come to an end.
“I do not eat children,” it said “And it is time for you to go.”
The boy shook his head “No. I want to see where you live. If I’m going to tell everyone about this, I’ll need to know.”
The monster raised itself up on its back legs and hissed, its mouth opening wide. Sharp fangs glistened and a long silvery tongue spilled out. It flickered and danced, ruby red steam cracking in the cold air.
The boy simply stared, as if unimpressed.
“I’ve seen scarier monsters.”
“What?” the monster hissed defensively. “You said you’ve never seen a monster before.”
“In movies I have. You’re not really scary. You’re like a big spider. Plus, you aren’t even going to eat her. You’re even worried that she’s cold.”
“Well it is a little chilly,” said the monster, immediately hunching up and drawing in its tongue.
It began to march again, quickly now. It was tiring itself out. It was made for stealth, not speed. The boy simply trotted along beside. A new tactic was needed.
“No one will believe your story,” it said.
“Oh, yes, they will. People love stories like this. People want to believe in things. You just have to tell them strong enough.”
The monster wondered if this was truly a boy.
The woods had risen around them, trees tall and heavy with hanging moss. Night creatures sang and yipped. It was careful in its path. The steps must be taken in precisely the right order. Making one misstep at this time might lead it down a stray path, to some place filled with beasts far more malevolent than it. It wouldn’t do well to be distracted.
The monster looked back at the boy, so small and warm. One as brave and as intrepid as this must be quite the dreamer… The monster pondered for a moment.
“If you wish to return you must remember the way. And you must return before dawn.”
The boy blew at a lock of hair hanging into his face. “Fine.”
The monster stared, listening to the sounds of the trees all around it. Their singing was faint here, but audible to it.
“Come. Let me carry you.”
The boy allowed the monster to pick him up although he did draw in a breath at the sight of the jagged claws that clutched him.
Together they moved through the woods and the singing grew stronger. The monster could tell the boy heard the song, although he may not have truly understood it.
The ground began to rise, and the trees began to thin out. The town and its slumbering folk were far behind. The wind was stronger here and it rose with every step. Soon the trees were no more, and their only companions were stunted shrubs and bushes. Turning back, the boy could only see the woods and nothing more beyond.
He gazed up at the sky, printed cold black and lit by stars. They seemed to trail and flow, leaving lines of light that may or may not really have been there.
“How many stars are there?”
The monster gazed up to a sky filled with light. It was as if the wind had blown away everything but it and its young charges. The stars gazed back.
“Do you ever stop asking questions?”
The boy considered this and then jumped down to the scree, steadying himself.
“Do you think anyone ever asked all the questions? How long would that take?”
The monster raised its jaws in what might have counted as a smile.
Ahead, its home awaited.
The boy followed the monster, clambering up the brown ochre rocks and splintered sand. There was a single tree up ahead, ancient and huge, twisted and turning in on itself. It was white hued and it rose into the sky, spiralling as if a great rope was unfurling to the stars.
The boy realised with surprise that the tree was still alive. A handful of olive leaves clung to the smallest branch at its peak.
“How old is this tree?”
“Older than you,” said the monster “Older even than I.”
As they approached, the boy marvelled at the tree’s gargantuan size. They slipped through a hollow that seemed to rise from the earth itself. Inside he smelt smoke, sweet pine and heard a hushed murmur somehow distant yet familiar.
“Where are we?”
“Someplace else,” replied the monster as it directed the boy inside.
A small fire burned in the middle of the hollowed out tree, but very little smoke rose from it. The boy moved closer, rubbing his hands together. He hadn’t realised how cold it was outside.
The monster crawled around the room carefully and the boy followed it. He noticed that they were not alone. The room was filled with children tucked into various nooks and crannies. The monster placed the girl in the shallow curve next to a hole through which stars sparkled. The monster pulled the blanket nearer and ran a talon along her hair. She was surrounded by others.
“Are they asleep?” asked the boy quietly.
“They dream here.”
“Do they ever wake up?”
“Sometimes. Briefly. They have milk and honey. I like to keep them in their dreams.”
“You steal their dreams.” Said the boy.
The monster turned in surprise.
“I don’t steal their dreams.”
“But you stole these children. Just like you stole this girl.”
The monster’s fine hairs trembled. What had it done? Why did it bring this boy here with his endless questions?
“Why do you take so many children?”
The monster passed a small cup to the boy and whispered “Dreams have a way of drying up. One night a year I can go back to your world. I can find… new dreams.”
The boy lay still, curled up by the fire. He sipped at the warm milk, his eyes glinting in the flames.
The monster said nothing although its head ran with thoughts and… questions.
The boy opened his mouth in a great sweeping yawn.
“Isn’t it time for you to go back home,” said the monster, but it didn’t sound like a question.
“Not now,” said the boy. “Maybe later.”
The monster bowed its head and pulled a fur lined blanket close. The boy reached for the edges and pulled them over himself, laying his head flat.
“No child has ever left here.”
The boy blinked slowly but said nothing. The monster busied itself tending to the fire.
“It’s too bad,” came the boys voice, barely more than a whisper. The monster faced the small thing, almost asleep and rubbing at his eyes.
“What is?” said the monster.
“That you leave them asleep.”
“You wouldn’t wish to live forever in dreams?” the monster asked quietly.
“Not forever.” The boy said and fell asleep.
The monster sat in silence for a long time. Its eyes shimmered in the light of the fire as it pondered the strange events of this night. The boy slept now, tired out by the journey. The monster reached out its great tongue and tasted the boy’s dreams.
They were fresh, cold and bright. The monster fell back, barely able to keep connected. It hadn’t tasted a dream like this in a long time.
It turned to its charges and tasted their dreams. They were familiar yes, each one a stream of thoughts and hopes and wonder… but faded. Dried out.
The monster shifted and turned, staring about the room. It looked out to the sky which already bled with a deep indigo. It would be dawn soon. The sun would rise.
The monster made plans. It began to tidy its tree. It swept and shuffled, moving dusty blankets around. It wasn’t careful to stay quiet. Dawn was coming and there seemed much to be done. It would wake its children, let their bleary eyes open and see the day. It would take them down the rocky slopes to the woods. It would let them play there. It would keep them up late, let them sit in the boughs of the tree and watch as night crept up once more. It would sit and watch them. It would let them count the stars.